Failing dam creates new crisis on Puerto Rico amid flooding from Hurricane Maria

Locals walk by a street affected by an overflow of the Soco River in El Seibo, Dominican Republic, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Emergency officials in Puerto Rico raced on Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people from a river valley below a dam in the island’s northwest, which is on the verge of collapse under the weight of flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The potential calamity was unfolding as Puerto Ricans struggled without electricity to clean up and dig out from the devastation left days earlier by Maria, which has killed at least 25 people across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Some 70,000 people live in a cluster of communities under evacuation downstream from the earthen dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said in a late-afternoon news conference on Friday.

Residents of the area were being ferried to higher ground in buses, according to bulletins issued by the National Weather Service from its office in San Juan, the capital of the U.S. island territory.

Christina Villalba, an official for the island’s emergency management agency, said there was little doubt the dam was about to break.

“It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow, it could be in the next few days, but it’s very likely it will be soon,” she told Reuters by telephone on Friday night. She said authorities aimed to complete evacuations within hours.

Governor Ricardo Rossello went to the municipality of Isabela on Friday night and told mayor Carlos Delgado that an evacuation there was urgent, his office said in a statement.

Rossello said the rains sparked by Maria had cracked the dam and could cause fatal flooding.

Puerto Rico’s national guard had been mobilized to help the police evacuate all necessary areas, Rossello said.

People had begun leaving nearby areas, but one small community was refusing and Rossello instructed the police to step in under a law that mandated them to remove the local population in an emergency, the statement said.

Villalba could not say how many people had already been evacuated, or how authorities were communicating with residents to organize the evacuation.

PATH OF DESTRUCTION

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction on Wednesday. The island remained entirely without electricity, except for emergency generators, two days later.

Telephone service was also unreliable.

Roofs were ripped from many homes and the landscape was littered with tangles of rubble, uprooted trees and fallen power lines. Torrential downpours from the storm sent several rivers to record flood levels.

Officials confirmed on Friday at least six storm-related fatalities in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million inhabitants – three from landslides in Utuado, in the island’s mountainous center, two drownings in Toa Baja, west of San Juan, and a person near San Juan who was struck by a piece of wind-blown lumber.

Earlier news reports had put the island’s death toll as high as 15.

“We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven’t been able to confirm,” said Hector Pesquera, the government’s secretary of public safety.

DEBT CRISIS

Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as the island was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history.

The storm was expected to tally $45 billion in damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, 14 deaths were reported on Dominica, an island nation of 71,000 inhabitants. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Two people died when the storm roared past the Dominican Republic on Thursday, according to media outlet El Jaya.

Maria churned past the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday, then skirted away from the Bahamas, sparing both from the brunt of the storm, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

It still had sustained winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 km/h) on Saturday, making it a Category 3 hurricane, but was expected to weaken gradually over the next two days as it turned more sharply to the north.

Storm swells driven by Maria were expected to reach the southeastern coast of the U.S mainland on Friday, the NHC said, although it was too soon to determine what, if any, other direct effects it would have.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

It hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John. The islands’ governor, Kenneth Mapp, said it was possible that St. Thomas and St. Croix might reopen to some cruise liner traffic in a month.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which also killed more than 80 people when it struck Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis and Jennifer Ablan in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

By Alvin Baez and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria roared ashore in Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in about 90 years after lashing the U.S. Virgin Islands and devastating a string of tiny Caribbean islands, killing at least one person.

Packing 155 mile per hour (250 kph) winds and driving high storm surges, Maria made landfall near Yabouca, the National Hurricane Center said. It was heading northwest, on a track directly over the island of 3.4 million people.

It struck just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, which left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and Florida.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a televised message on Tuesday.

“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.

In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5 cm) of rain on parts of the island, the NHC said. Storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, could be up to 9 feet (2.74 meters).

The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.

A few hours earlier, Maria passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 103,000 residents, as a rare Category 5 storm the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The center has hurricane warnings and watches out for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.

Many U.S. Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents that their lives were at risk.

“The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it,” Mapp said.

Authorities expect to start assessing storm damage on St. Croix from daybreak.

After crossing Puerto Rico, Maria will pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.

It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.

Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

DIRECT HIT

Maria is set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane made a direct hit on the island and killed about 300 people, the National Weather Service said.

A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the NHC added.

Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people.

“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.”

Puerto Rico is grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid fights with creditors.

The storm plowed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.

North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.

Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in San Juan, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and W Simon)

Houston residents, officials stew over Harvey storm-trash removal

FILE PHOTO: Flood-damaged contents from people's homes line the street following the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S., September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Disposing of the mounds of debris lining Houston streets three weeks after Hurricane Harvey flooding damaged about 126,000 homes is riling residents and officials in the nation’s fourth largest city.

The sheer volume of work is overwhelming initial efforts, say residents, resulting in pleas from officials for the state and private contractors to contribute vehicles. Houston also is offering to increase its fees for emergency trash removal to bring in more waste disposal trucks.

“We have been asking for more trucks for weeks,” said Greg Travis, a Houston city councilor whose hard-hit west Houston district had just two trucks operating one day this week. There is no schedule of collections nor estimate when one would be available, he said.

Houston’s trash haulers are working side-by-side with a disaster contractor’s crews from San Antonio and Austin, Texas. The city’s size, about 627 square miles (1623.92 square kilometers), is larger than Los Angeles or New York.

Across Texas, the debris left behind by the storm could reach 200 million cubic yards – enough to fill up a football stadium almost 125 times, Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated on Thursday. Harvey’s path up the Texas coast killed as many as 82 people, flooding homes and businesses with up to 51 inches of rain.

“We have no idea when it’s going to be picked up,” said Houston resident David Greely, 51. “It’s overwhelming.”

DRC Emergency Services LLC, the city’s contractor for emergency trash removal, has about 300 trucks operating in Houston and surrounding areas, according to President John Sullivan.

“We’ll reach 500 trucks in the next few days,” he said.

Houston is renegotiating its contract to expedite the work, Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said on Friday.

An 8.9 percent temporary property-tax increase proposed this week by the mayor would pay for damage to city property and for costs not covered by the United States. Turner estimated the cost of debris removal is $200 million.

Contract renegotiations are common during disasters, according to DRC’s Sullivan.

“There has been price adjustments for debris contractors across Texas for Harvey recovery, not just Houston,” he said.

Some well-to-do neighborhoods have begun considering paying for private trash haulers to pick up the debris.

“I don’t know if I’m on the city’s list for trash cleanup,” said Eric Olafson, 62, who added his neighbors are discussing paying private contractors to remove their debris.

(Reporting by Bryan Sims; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Diane Craft)

Shocked residents return to Irma-ravaged Florida Keys

Shocked residents return to Irma-ravaged Florida Keys

By Andy Sullivan

ISLAMORADA, Fla. (Reuters) – Evacuees from Hurricane Irma were early on Wednesday returning to the Florida Keys, where sunrise will give them a first glimpse of devastation that has left countless homes and businesses in ruins.

Categorized as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, Irma claimed more than 60 lives, officials said.

At least 18 people died in Florida and destruction was widespread in the Keys, where Irma made initial U.S. landfall on Sunday to become the second major hurricane to strike the mainland this season.

A resort island chain that stretches from the tip of the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys are connected by a bridges and causeways along a narrow route of nearly 100 miles (160 km).

“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a job. I have nothing,” said Mercedes Lopez, 50, whose family fled north from the Keys town of Marathon on Friday and rode out the storm at an Orlando hotel, only to learn their home was destroyed, along with the gasoline station where she worked.

“We came here, leaving everything at home, and we go back to nothing,” Lopez said. Four families from Marathon including hers planned to venture back on Wednesday to salvage what they can.

The Keys had been largely evacuated by the time Irma barreled ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 km/hour).

Initial damage assessments found 25 percent of homes there were destroyed and 65 percent suffered major damage, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

‘SAILBOAT IN OUR BACKYARD’

Authorities allowed re-entry to the islands of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada for residents and business owners on Tuesday. The extent of the devastation took many of the first returnees by surprise.

“I expected some fence lines to be down and some debris,” said Orlando Morejon, 51, a trauma surgeon from Miami as he hacked away at a tree blocking his Islamorada driveway. “We were not expecting to find someone else’s sailboat in our backyard.”

A boil water notice was in effect for the Keys late on Tuesday, while its airports remained closed to commercial flights.

Several major airports in Florida that had halted passenger operations resumed with limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest in the United States.

All 42 bridges in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, were deemed safe and one of two washed out sections of U.S. 1 Roadway was now navigable, the county said on its Twitter account.

At the end of Islamorada, roughly the halfway point of the Keys, police at a checkpoint turned around returning residents seeking to travel farther south and waved through utility crews, law enforcement and healthcare workers.

Authorities said they were barring re-entry to the remainder of the Keys to allow more time to restore electricity, water, fuel and medical service. U.S. officials have said some 10,000 Keys residents stayed put when the storm hit and may ultimately need to be evacuated.

Across Florida and nearby states, some 5.8 million homes and businesses were late on Tuesday estimated to be still without power, down from a peak of 7.4 million on Monday.

Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light Co [NEEPWR.UL], said western parts of Florida might be without electricity until Sept. 22.

A man cheers just as power is restored to his house after Hurricane Irma struck the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A man cheers just as power is restored to his house after Hurricane Irma struck the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The state’s largest city, Jacksonville, in its northeastern corner, was still recovering from heavy flooding on Wednesday.

While damage across Florida was severe, it paled in comparison with devastation wrought by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, which accounted for the bulk of the hurricane’s fatalities.

It destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-governed portion of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Martin, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.

Irma was a post-tropical cyclone late on Tuesday as it drifted north as it brought rain to the Mississippi Valley, the National Hurricane Center said.

It hit the United States soon after Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, mostly from flooding.

Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint stands with his wife Maria Dorsaint in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang

Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint stands with his wife Maria Dorsaint in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Florida; Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Letitia Stein in Detroit; Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; and Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Scott DiSavino in New York; editing by John Stonestreet)

Officials urge patience as Florida towns re-open after Irma

Officials urge patience as Florida towns re-open after Irma

By Andy Sullivan and Robin Respaut

FLORIDA CITY/MARCO ISLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Florida began allowing some residents to return to their homes hammered by Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, but officials warned that it would take a long time to repair the damage wrought by high winds and pounding surf, particularly in the Keys archipelago.

Irma, which had rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday. It will likely dissipate from Tuesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.

At its peak it prompted the evacuation of 6.5 million people, the largest evacuation in modern U.S. history.

Local authorities told around 90,000 residents of Miami Beach and from some parts of the Florida Keys they could go home but warned it may be prudent not to remain there.

“This is going to be a frustrating event. It’s going to take some time to let people back into their homes particularly in the Florida Keys,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a morning press conference.

He noted that FEMA was continuing to rescue people stranded by flooding around Jacksonville, in the state’s northeast.

After leaving a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands, killing nearly 40 people, Irma caused record flooding in parts of Florida. Only one Florida fatality has been confirmed so far, but a local official said there had been more deaths.

Irma became the second major hurricane to make landfall in the United States in a little more than two weeks when it roared ashore on Key Cudjoe as a powerful Category 4 storm on Sunday. It followed Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and wreaking some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding.

About 2-1/2 months remain in the official Atlantic hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center is monitoring another hurricane, Jose, which is spinning in the Caribbean, currently about 700 miles (1,130 km) from the mainland.

MILITARY AID

The U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln has arrived off Florida’s east coast and two amphibious assault ships will arrive on Tuesday to help in the Keys. The military will distribute food and help evacuate 10,000 residents who did not leave before the storm.

Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said Monday that people had been killed in the Keys, where nearly 80,000 permanent residents live, apart from one already known fatality. She did not have a count on how many.

“We are finding some remains,” she said in an interview with CNN. Video footage of the islands showed homes torn apart by sustained winds of up to 130 mph (210 kph).

Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest U.S. airports.

The scope of damage in Florida and neighboring states paled in comparison with the devastation left by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, where it razed islands and killed nearly 40.

RECORD FLOODS

The center of Irma moved into Alabama on Tuesday and will head into western Tennessee by Tuesday evening with maximum sustained winds of 25 mph.

In South Carolina, the Charleston Harbor area saw major flooding on Monday with water about 3 feet (1 meter) above flood stage and minor flooding is forecast for Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

Miami Beach will allow residents to return home from 8 a.m. (1200 GMT), its mayor said. More evacuation orders are likely to be lifted on Tuesday.

Monroe County opened road access on Tuesday morning for residents and business owners from Key Largo, the main island at the upper end of the chain, as well as the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada farther to the south, fire officials said.

No timetable was given for reopening the remainder of the Keys.

MOST OF FLORIDA WITHOUT ELECTRICITY

Insured property losses in Florida from Irma are expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.

Utilities reported some 7.4 million homes and businesses were without electricity in Florida and neighboring states and said it could take weeks to fully restore service.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 utility workers from out of state, sent to inspect and repair power lines, were staying in Broward County in cramped conditions at BB&T Center, home to the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, said Gus Beyersdorf, 40, of De Pere, Wisconsin.

“Each one of us has a cot, a single foot apart,” Beyersdorf said on Monday afternoon. “I slept in the truck last night just to get a break from it.”

At least one other possibly storm-related fatal car crash was reported on Sunday in Orange County, Florida. On Monday, two people were killed by falling trees in two Atlanta suburbs, according to local authorities.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Fla., Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Scott DiSavino in New York and Marc Frank in Havana; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Chizu Nomiyama)

Battered by cyclone, Philippines suffers flooding, landslides

Battered by cyclone, Philippines suffers flooding, landslides

MANILA (Reuters) – A cyclone dumped heavy rains in the Philippine capital, Manila, and nearby provinces on Tuesday, causing widespread flooding and landslides in some areas that killed at least two people, the national disaster agency said.

Financial markets, government offices and schools were closed and port operations in some provinces were suspended, it said. Several flights were canceled.

The weather bureau said cyclone Maring, which was packing winds of up to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph), made landfall in the morning over Mauban municipality in the eastern province of Quezon.

Romina Marasigan, a spokeswoman for the national disaster agency, said two teenaged brothers died from a landslide in Taytay, Rizal, 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) from Manila.

“Some residents unfortunately did not heed the advice of local officials to evacuate to safer grounds,” she said in a media briefing.

Marasigan warned of more flashfloods and landslides as rains were expected to continue later in the day, before the cyclone moves back over the sea early on Wednesday.

Twenty-two passengers were rescued from a bus stuck in floodwaters in Pitogo town in Quezon, she said.

Local officials ordered the evacuation of residents in some towns under floodwaters in Quezon, Laguna, Rizal and Batangas provinces, she said.

The weather bureau said it was also keeping an eye on typhoon Talim which was packing winds of up to 120 kph (75 mph), spotted moving toward the country’s northern tip and to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Dondi Tawatao; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Stormed-tossed Texans set to return to work as recovery picks up

Stormed-tossed Texans set to return to work as recovery picks up

By Daniel Trotta

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Texas takes another step toward recovery from Hurricane Harvey on Tuesday when many residents return to work for the first time since the storm devastated the Houston area, killing around 60 people and putting tens of thousands into emergency shelters. Many large Texas employers, universities and transit services are reopening or beginning full service on Tuesday after Labor Day, some for the first time since Harvey struck the state on Aug. 25.

Oil refineries, pipelines and shipping channels in the nation’s energy center have begun a gradual return of operations. Exxon Mobil <XOM.N>, Halliburton <HAL.N> and Chevron <CVX.N> are among the scores of Houston businesses reopening their doors to office workers. Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi and the University of Houston also are resuming classes Tuesday.

The storm first hit Corpus Christi in the south and traveled up the coast, dumping up to 51 inches (129 cm) of rain in places across the region and flooding homes and businesses.

Texas residents who fled to Austin, San Antonio and Dallas ahead of the storm returned to check on their homes as flooded streets drained.

In Houston, travel north and east of the city eased over the weekend and highways filled as more gasoline stations opened and supplies, while tight, proved adequate.

Exxon said its Spring, Texas, campus was unaffected by the heavy rains. But employees who need to work remotely are encouraged to do so, spokeswoman Suann Guthrie said.

Houston Metro, a regional transit provider, said it would open all its parking lots and rush-hour lanes on Tuesday.

Most roads have reopened but travel in some areas west of the city remains difficult. ConocoPhillips’ <COP.N> headquarters on the west side is closed until Sept. 11 due to flooded roads.

Houston’s school district, the seventh largest in the nation, also remains closed this week to repair flooded schools. The district has said about 75 of its 275 schools suffered major or extensive flood damage.

As Houston picked up the pieces from the devastation of Harvey, a new hurricane threat appeared, this time headed for the Caribbean islands, the U.S. East Coast and Florida.

Hurricane Irma was upgraded to a powerful Category 4 storm on Monday as islands in its path braced for its impact. Hurricane advisories were issued for territories that dot the West Indies, including parts of the Leeward Islands, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in preparation for the storm.

Rotting drywall and other material ripped out of homes damaged by Tropical Storm Harvey sits on the edge of a residential street in Houston's Meyerland neighborhood in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ernest ScheyderRotting drywall and other material ripped out of homes damaged by Tropical Storm Harvey sits on the edge of a residential street in Houston's Meyerland neighborhood in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

Rotting drywall and other material ripped out of homes damaged by Tropical Storm Harvey sits on the edge of a residential street in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

ENERGY SECTOR

In Texas, shipping channels, oil pipelines and refineries restarted some operations on Monday and authorities lifted an evacuation order for the area around a once-burning chemical plant.

Port operations across the U.S. Gulf Coast oil and gas hub were resuming, although many still had restrictions on vessel draft, according to U.S. Coast Guard updates.

U.S. gasoline prices fell in expectation that the area can get back on its feet after Harvey cut a path of destruction across more than 300 miles (480 km). Benchmark U.S. gasoline futures <RBc1> fell by more than 3 percent on Monday.

The Coast Guard allowed some barge traffic to enter Port Arthur, Texas, home of the country’s largest oil refinery, and is considering allowing ships to enter on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

Flooding from Harvey caused fires at the Arkema SA <AKE.PA> chemical plant in Crosby, some 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Houston.

But on Monday, the company said the Crosby Fire Department had lifted a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) evacuation zone around the plant, allowing people to return to their homes.

The lifting of the order may help residents like Paul Mincey, a 31-year-old tugboat engineer who has been kept out of the ranch home he shares with his girlfriend, return to normal.

“It could be full of snakes for all we know. We have no idea what’s in there,” Mincey said from aboard a tugboat in the Houston Ship Channel, which he said was polluted by floating railroad ties, trees and trash strewn by the storm.

HOW TO PAY?

The question of how to pay for hurricane recovery became more urgent in Washington after Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Sunday increased his damage estimate to between $150 billion and $180 billion.

Republicans and Democrats returning to Washington on Tuesday after a month-long break will need to put differences aside in order to approve an aid package. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin challenged Congress to raise the government’s debt limit in order to free up relief spending.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Wednesday on $7.85 billion in emergency relief funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration and plans another vote later this month on a separate $6.7 billion sought by President Donald Trump.

The Texas Department of Public Safety on Monday estimated damage to public property at $382.3 million. Some 190,000 homes were damaged and another 13,500 destroyed, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

For a graphic on Hurricane costs, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/STORM-HARVEY-RELIEF/010050LZ1F3/index.html

For a graphic on storms in the North Atlantic, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/STORM-HARVEY/010050K2197/index.html

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Gary McWilliams in Houston and David Shepardson in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Trump to visit victims of unprecedented floods in Texas and Louisiana

Trump to visit victims of unprecedented floods in Texas and Louisiana

By Emily Flitter and Daniel Trotta

HOUSTON (Reuters) – U.s. President Donald Trump travels to Houston and Lake Charles, Louisiana on Saturday to meet victims of catastrophic storm Harvey, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history that is presenting a test of his administration.

While Trump visits, attention will also be focused on Minute Maid Park, where baseball’s Houston Astros play their first home games since Harvey devastated the fourth-most populous U.S. city. The Saturday doubleheader with the New York Mets is expected to be wrought with emotion and punctuated with moments to honor the dozens who died as a result of Harvey.

The storm, one of the costliest to hit the United States, has displaced more than 1 million people, with 50 feared dead from flooding that paralyzed Houston, swelled river levels to record highs and knocked out the drinking water supply in Beaumont, Texas, a city of 120,000 people.

Hurricane Harvey came ashore last Friday as the strongest storm to hit Texas in more than 50 years. Much of the damage took place in the Houston metropolitan area, which has an economy about the same size as Argentina’s.

For graphic on hurricane costs, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2vGkbHS

For graphic on storms in the North Atlantic, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2gcckz5

Seventy percent of Harris County, which encompasses Houston, at one point was covered with 18 inches (45 cm) or more of water, county officials said.

Trump first visited the Gulf region on Tuesday, but stayed clear of the disaster zone, saying he did not want to hamper rescue efforts. Instead, he met with state and local leaders, and first responders.

He was criticized, however, for not meeting with victims of the worst storm to hit Texas in 50 years, and for largely focusing on the logistics of the government response rather than the suffering of residents.

The White House said Trump will first travel to Houston to meet with flood survivors and volunteers who assisted in relief efforts and then move on to Lake Charles, another area hammered by the storm.

The Trump administration in a letter to Congress asked for a $7.85 billion appropriation for response and initial recovery efforts. White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert has said aid funding requests would come in stages as more became known about the impact of the storm.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said that his state may need more than $125 billion.

The storm, which lingered around the Gulf of Mexico Coast for days, dumped record amounts of rain and left devastation across more than 300 miles (480 km) of the state’s coast.

As water receded, many returned to survey the damage and left hundreds of thousands wondering how they can recover.

In Orange, Texas, about 125 miles (200 kms) east of Houston, Sam Dougharty, 36, returned on Friday where waist-high water remained in his backyard and barn.

His family’s house smelled like raw sewage and was still flooded to the ankles. A calf and a heifer from their herd of 15 were dead. The chickens were sagging on the top two roosts of their coop.

“We never had water here. This is family land. My aunt’s owned it for 40 years and never had water here,” he said.

Members of Army National Guard conduct high water rescue operations in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S. in this August 31, 2017 handout photo. Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shelley/Air National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

Members of Army National Guard conduct high water rescue operations in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S. in this August 31, 2017 handout photo. Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shelley/Air National Guard/Handout via REUTERS

FROM THE SHELTER TO THE STADIUM

Harvey came on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,800 around New Orleans. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration was roundly criticized for its botched early response to the storm.

Some of the tens of thousands of people forced into shelters by Harvey will attend the Astros game where Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will throw out the first pitch and a moment of silence in planned for those who perished.

Sports have helped other cities rebound from catastrophe, such as when the New York Mets played the first baseball game in their damaged city 10 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or when the New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome in 2006 for football a year after Hurricane Katrina.

In the Harris County area of Clear Creek, the nearly 50 inches (127 cm) of rain that fell there equated to a once in a 40,000 year event, Jeff Lindner, meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, said.

Some 440,000 Texans have already applied for federal financial disaster assistance, and some $79 million has been approved so far, Abbott said.

The storm shut about a fourth of U.S. refinery capacity, much of which is clustered along the Gulf Coast, and caused gasoline prices to spike to a two-year high ahead of the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has risen more than 17.5 cents since the storm struck, hitting $2.59 as of Saturday morning, motorists group AAA said.

Meanwhile a new storm, Irma, had strengthened on Friday into a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. It remained hundreds of miles from land but was forecast to possibly hit Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti by the middle of next week.

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis, Ernest Scheyder, Ruthy Munoz, Peter Henderson and Andy Sullivan in Houston, Steve Holland in Washington, Julia Simon in New York, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

At least three dead as Lidia slams Mexico’s Los Cabos tourist hub

At least three dead as Lidia slams Mexico's Los Cabos tourist hub

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – At least three people died after torrential rain from Tropical Storm Lidia provoked major flooding around Mexico’s popular Los Cabos beach resort on Friday, authorities said.

Featuring maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour (97 kph), the storm was projected to move north over a large swath of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula before turning west toward the Pacific on Sunday.

Local television footage showed abandoned cars and trucks in washed-out roads, as well as destroyed beach-front structures.

Lidia, about 55 miles (89 km) north-northeast of Cabo San Lazaro, was moving at a speed of 12 miles per hour (19 kmh) as it skirted the western coast of the peninsula, according to an advisory from the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Luis Felipe Puente, the head of national emergency services, told Reuters that the storm claimed a child and two adults who were trying to cross a raging river.

Lidia also provoked power outages, damaged houses and roads, as well as forcing some 2,800 people into local shelters.

While the storm is forecast to further weaken over the next couple of days, it is expected to dump between 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm) of rain across the peninsula as well as parts of Sinaloa and Sonora states.

“These rains may cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the NHC said in its advisory.

(Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by David Alire Garcia and James Dalgleish)

Search for survivors in Texas as storm Harvey heads north

Search for survivors in Texas as storm Harvey heads north

By Emily Flitter and Richard Valdmanis

LAKE CHARLES, La./HOUSTON (Reuters) – The remnants of Tropical Storm Harvey drenched northern Louisiana on Thursday as it moved inland, leaving rescuers to search homes around Houston and in the hard-hit southeastern Texas coast for more survivors or victims.

The storm killed at least 35 people and the death toll was rising as bodies were found in receding waters. Some 32,000 people were forced into shelters around the U.S. energy hub of Houston since Harvey came ashore on Friday as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in a half-century.

Storm-related power outages prompted two explosions at a flood-hit Arkema SA chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Houston, with one sheriff’s deputy sent to the hospital after inhaling toxic chemicals.

“The plume is incredibly dangerous,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said at a news briefing.

A 1.5-mile (2.4 km) radius around the plant had been evacuated and the company urged people to stay away from the area, warning further blasts were likely.

By Thursday, Harvey was downgraded to a tropical depression, located about 15 miles (24 km) south of Monroe, Louisiana. The storm’s rains wrought the most damage along the Gulf Coast and the National Weather Service warned as much as 10 inches (25.4 cm) could fall in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Rivers and reservoirs in Texas remained at or near flood level, with officials warning that high water would remain a danger in the region for the next few days.

Federal officials also had already rescued 10,000 people from flooded homes and would continue to search, Brock said.

The Houston Fire Department will begin a block-by-block effort on Thursday to rescue stranded survivors and recover bodies, Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann told reporters.

Search for survivors in Texas as storm Harvey heads north

Houses are seen submerged in flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

CAJUN NAVY ON THE MOVE

Nine members of the ad-hoc “Cajun Navy” towing boats behind pickup trucks gathered in Lake Charles early on Thursday, deliberating whether they could safely get in to badly flooded parts of coastal southeastern Texas, including Orange, Port Arthur and Beaumont.

“You can’t get anywhere by vehicle,” said Troy Payne, 56, who had driven in from Atlanta. “To me, this is a helicopter function from here on out unless the water level falls.”

Payne said he planned to drive north to try to find another way into Texas.

Nearly 30 inches (76.2 cm) of rain hit the Port Arthur area.

Beaumont said it had lost its water supply due to flood damage to its main pumping station.

Fort Bend County ordered a mandatory evacuation on Thursday for areas near the Barker Reservoir, which was threatening to flood. The reservoir is about 20 miles (32 km) west of Houston.

Clear skies in Houston on Wednesday brought relief to the energy hub and fourth-largest U.S. city after five days of catastrophic downpours. The first flight out of Houston since the storm hit boarded on Wednesday evening.

Police in Houston’s Harris County said 17 people remained missing.

Some 325,000 people and businesses already had applied for FEMA assistance and the agency already has paid out $57 million in aid, Brock said.

Anita Williams, 52, was among dozens of people lined up Thursday morning at a shelter at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center to register for FEMA aid. She said she had been able to get to her neighborhood on Wednesday to survey the damage to her one-story house as the flood waters receded.

“It’s not my house anymore. My deep freezer was in my living room,” she said, her voice breaking.

Williams said she had been trapped by the storm on the Houston Ship Channel bridge overnight on Saturday in her Toyota Camry before she was rescued Sunday by a man in a large truck. Her fiancé, a disabled man, had to be rescued from their house as waters rose to chest level and joined her.

“I just thank God they were able to get to him,” Williams said.

David Michaelis holds his 3-year-old grandson Teddy as he wades through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Orange, Texas, U.S., August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

David Michaelis holds his 3-year-old grandson Teddy as he wades through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Orange, Texas, U.S., August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

ENERGY PRODUCTION DISRUPTED

Flooding shut the nation’s largest oil refinery in Port Arthur in the latest hit to U.S. energy infrastructure that has sent gasoline prices climbing and disrupted global fuel supplies. [O/R]

The storm prompted the U.S. Energy Department to authorize the first emergency release of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve since 2012. Some 500,000 barrels of oil will be delivered to a Phillips 66 refinery in Louisiana unaffected by the storm, an Energy Department spokeswoman said in a statement.

Average U.S. retail gasoline prices have surged to $2.449 per gallon nationwide in the storm’s wake, up 10.1 cents from a week ago, the AAA said on Thursday.

Moody’s Analytics is estimating the economic cost from Harvey for southeast Texas at $51 billion to $75 billion, ranking it among the costliest storms in U.S. history.

At least $23 billion worth of property has been affected by flooding from Harvey just in parts of Texas’ Harris and Galveston counties, a Reuters analysis of satellite imagery and property data showed.

Governor Greg Abbott warned that floodwaters would linger for up to a week. The area affected is larger than that hit by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in New Orleans, and 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, which killed 132 around New York and New Jersey, he said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and several Cabinet secretaries will travel to Texas on Thursday to meet residents affected by the storm.

For a graphic on storms in the North Atlantic, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2gcckz5

A dog is rescued from the flood waters in Beaumont Place.

A dog is rescued from the flood waters in Beaumont Place.
REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Two rescuers from U.S. Navy Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 are lowered to a house after Tropical Storm Harvey flooded a neighborhood in Beaumont, Texas, U.S. in a still image from video August 30, 2017. U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Ernest Scott/Handout via REUTERS

Two rescuers from U.S. Navy Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 are lowered to a house after Tropical Storm Harvey flooded a neighborhood in Beaumont, Texas, U.S. in a still image from video August 30, 2017. U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Ernest Scott/Handout via REUTERS

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis, Mica Rosenberg, Marianna Parraga, Gary McWilliams, Ernest Scheyder, Erwin Seba, Ruthy Munoz, Peter Henderson and Andy Sullivan in Houston, David Gaffen and Christine Prentice in New York, Susan Heavey in Washington, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)